May 16, 2011

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Why The Lakers and Celtics are Heading in Different Directions

By: Anson Whaley

With the early second-round exits suffered by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celticsthis past week, much has been made about the shrinking window of opportunity for more championships for each team. The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win the last three NBA Championships and in two of those seasons, have faced off against each other for the title. So why is everyone down on their chances to win more hardware?

Age.

Boston and Los Angeles have two of the oldest rosters in the NBA. Even the 1996-97 Houston Rockets team of aging vets such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis, Sedale Threatt, and Eddie Johnson (all of whom had played at least 11 years at the time) think these guys might be over the hill. So are these two franchises, the most storied ones in league history, effectively done winning championships with the same group of players? Well, one of them is.

Last week, I heard plenty of analysts draw parallels to these two teams. But the fact is that they’re both in entirely different situations.

The Celtics are, for all intents and purposes, finished. The team’s triumvirate of stars, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are all getting up in age. While all three were durable this season, they are also past their prime – and by several seasons. The Celtics have a few nice pieces in guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jeff Green, but (and with all due respect to Rondo who is a very good young point guard) those are supplementary players. Shaquille O’Neal’s absence in the series against the Miami Heatproved that age is catching up to him and without the recently-traded Kendrick Perkins, Boston was extremely light in the frontcourt, needing to rely on Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic.

Boston simply doesn’t have enough to compete for future rings with this group of players. If they’re to get back to the top, the Celtics will need to reshape their current roster. The greatest need will be to add another skilled rebounder in the middle to complement or even replace Shaq. In the words of Yoda: several mediocre rebounders do not a frontcourt make. Adding a quality guard would also be a good idea as the Celtics are very thin after Rondo and Allen. Boston’s greatest problem lies in the fact that due to their age, the team cannot expect to make it through a full season healthy.

The Lakers, on the other hand, still have enough in the tank for a few more runs. Despite the embarrassing sweep to Dallas, there’s plenty left on this team. Kobe Bryant is still the best closer in the game and one of the NBA’s top players. After Bryant, you’ve got Pau Gasol. I know, I get it – he disappeared against the Mavericks. Fact is that he was dealing with some off-court issues and probably just needed a break from the game. The only problem for the Lakers was that he took it during the most important time in the season.

And here’s the thing about Gasol – even though he vanished faster than Houdini in the Mavericks series, he has a good track record of succeeding in the playoffs. His numbers in the postseason over the past two years actually exceeded those of his regular season stats. Because of that, I don’t expect Pau to shrink again next season and Los Angeles will be a better team for it.

In case the Bryant/Gasol duo isn’t enough, the Lakers also can throw Andrew Bynum, one of the best (and here’s the key) young centers in the game and Lamar Odom, who seems like he’s been in the league forever, but is only 31.

Los Angeles’ key pieces are simply younger than those of Boston’s. Four of the five Celtics starters are at least 33 years old while the only Laker starter that old is Derek Fisher. And while Fisher has been an integral part of the Lakers winning five championships, he’s not relied on nearly as much as any of the Celtics starters. The Lakers would be a better team if they could add a younger point guard in their starting rotation, but they could get by with Fisher for the next season or two if need be.

Not only is Los Angeles younger where it counts, but they’re also better than Boston – which is why a couple more title runs with the same team might not be out of the picture.

April 27, 2011

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NBA Playoffs: Lessons Learned So Far

By: Rick Jarrell

With less than a quarter of the NBA playoffs complete, it may be too early to rush to judgment. There’s a lot of competitive basketball to be played, and as we’ve seen so far in the Memphis/San Antonio series, anything can happen. But a few of the first round match ups have made for some fairly concrete, if not obvious, conclusions.

Hold on D-Rose, CP3 is Still Here

The second half of the regular season brought the rise of Derrick Rose. As I’ve said before, Rose took his game to a whole other level the first half of the season. Then with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer back from early injuries, Rose took his game to yet ANOTHER level to lead the Chicago Bullsto the best overall record. His performance was tantalizing to casual and diehard basketball fans alike. A lot of people, including myself, saw him as the best point guard in the league – with good reason. But with the regular season over, and the playoffs underway, a lot of people are watching with their foot in their mouths as Chris Paul makes professionals look like amateurs.

Despite playing at a high level all season, Paul’s serious knee injury seasons ago left him without his quick first step, and caused many to question the longevity of his career. Still hands down the best pure point guard in the league, it was amazing to watch him adjusting his game accordingly after the injury. But something was still missing. Apparently, that something was stored away for the playoffs.

CP3 has led the New Orleans Hornets against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, currently down 3-2, all without star power forward David West, lost to injury. His ability to manage the game, draw defenders just far enough toward him to seed the pass into the lane for an easy bucket, or nail the mid range jumper if left open, is magical. As for the knee? This video of Paul crossing up Andrew Bynum shows as visual proof CP3 can still break your ankles. If he’s on his game, New Orleans will win the series. Let’s see what he can do with his team facing elimination for Game 6 back in New Orleans.

Brandon Roy is Still Here, Too

The Portland Blazers, perhaps the most trendy upset pick this year, were on the verge of going down 3-1 to the Dallas Mavericks. That is, until Brandon Roy came to life. In the process of being blown out, the Blazers began to slowly pick away at the lead after halftime. Then, in the fourth, Roy took over, hitting shot after shot for the otherwise anemic Portland offense, carrying his team to victory. Impressive for a franchise player, but Roy’s story is different.

Coming out of Washington, he had two severely injured knees. No one knew how long his career would be able to go. After early success, more knee issues emerged, and Roy was forced to miss a ton of time, including the majority of this season. He can’t even play in back to back games in some cases. His knee is essentially a series of bone-on-bone connections. I can’t imagine living with that, let alone running up and down a court and colliding with physical specimens. But Roy was able to get past his problems, and rise above them to a truly inspiring performance. I don’t usually gush over comebacks like this, because he making millions of dollars a year, but Brandon Roy is a classy guy and great teammate. Makes me feel like I should take my fully function knees to the gym immediately. The Portland crowd was ecstatic for their hobbled superstar. The city deserves their first playoff series this decade, and hopefully Roy’s performance will provide momentum toward an upset over the Mavs, who now hold the series lead at 3-2.

Grizzlies Rewrite the Rules

Speaking of unexpected performances, the Memphis Grizzlies are on the verge of upsetting the Western Conference’s top seed, the San Antonio Spurs. A playoff mainstay and three time champion over the past decade, the Spurs usually make lunch meat out of inexperienced, young teams like the Grizzlies. But inspired play from Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and OJ Mayo has fueled the athletic Griz past the veteran Spurs to a 3-1 series lead.

Memphis has managed to make the Spurs look inept. Usually a well oil machine, turnovers and lack of defensive presence have so far doomed the powerhouse. There’s still a small chance the Spurs can come back, and if there’s a team out there with that drive in them, it’s definitely San Antonio, but the Griz still hold the reigns. Not only is a first round upset a possibility for Z-Bo and the gang, but a favorable match up with Oklahoma City in the second may wait, depending on the outcome of that series. Memphis has a serious opportunity for the Grizzlies to make some noise.

Big Three Non-existent in NYC

That was fast. All of the media fire surrounding the so-called revival of the Celtic-Knicksrivalry was extinguished before it even had a chance to spread. For the second year in a row, Boston stumbled into the playoffs only to show us, again, that a veteran team doesn’t necessarily have to perform at the highest level during the regular season. And the optimism for New York fans that the Carmelo Anthony trade would finally bring playoff success after a decade of dismal play was squashed, just like that.

In all fairness, this should have been a better series. New York could have won the first game, and probably would have if not for a questionable offensive foul call on Carmelo. If that outcome had come to fruition, the Knicks could have used that momentum towards an upset. But instead, we saw Boston adjust to the Knicks game plan and cause them to panic into late game Carmelo isolations rather than go to Amare Stoudemirein the post. The injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups weren’t exactly catalysts, either – the downfall of assembly a “big three” surrounded by veterans and minimum contract players.

But is the Carmelo-Amere-Billups combination even really a “big three?” The trifecta do not complement each other like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allendo, nor are they individually as talented as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. It’s clear the Knicks have a lot of work to do, and even more clear the “big three” euphemism is being thrown around WAY too much. Toward the end of the regular season, my local media outlets began referring to John Wall, Jordan Crawford, and Andray Blatche as a “big three.” The NYC application of the term is nowhere near as presumptuous as the Washington Wizards, and may be slightly off topic, but you get the point.

Look on the bright side, Knicks fans. The NBA draft is quickly approaching us. Oh wait, no draft picks… let the Dwight Howard watch begin!

Demise of the Orlando Magic

Speaking of which, look how far the Orlando Magic have fallen. From a surprise Eastern Conference powerhouse to an athletic superhuman surrounded by shooters who can’t seem to shoot. The team has only seemed to decline since their surprise domination of the Cleveland Cavaliersa couple years ago. From letting Hedo Turkoglu leave, the Vince Carterexperiment, reacquiring Turkoglu, and trading away Rashard Lewis for once upon a time Agent Zero in Gilbert Arenas, General Manager Otis Smith appears to be chasing Howard out of town on purpose.

The Atlanta Hawks, a team that Orlando has historically man handled, largely in part due to Howard’s dominance in the paint, have taken control of the series. Journeyman Jason Collins, Atlanta’s cure for Howard, has kept the big man from taking over. Aside from Howard’s 46 point, 20 rebound performance in Game 2, which Orlando lost anyway, Collins and the Hawks have held their own in the paint. And when Howard does kick the ball to the wings, Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Jameer Nelson are unable to knock down open jumpers. Sharpe contrast to what we’ve seen in the past.

Some highs, some lows, but an exciting beginning to the 2011 NBA playoffs for sure. Non-NBA fans point to the long post season as one of the negatives of the league, but I’m thankful we get two months of the highest level of competitive basketball. Honestly, it’s hard to get anything productive done during this time frame, unless you count watching the playoffs as productive. Which I do…

April 19, 2011

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Wild Start to NBA Playoffs

By: Joe Williams

The next few weeks can’t be this good. Can they? If the first couple days of NBA playoff action are any indication of what’s to come, this will be one of the best NBA playoffs in NBA history. Every higher seed was in danger of losing. There have been devastating injuries, controversial calls and nearly every game in doubt in the final minutes.

Most of the best-of-seven series have just one game in the books and now there are more questions than answers about who is going to survive the first round. Here’s a look at each NBA team playoff matchup.

1 Chicago Bulls vs. 8 Indiana Pacers

Derrick Rose scores 39 points and leads Chicago on a 16-1 run to finish the game for a come-from-behind victory in game one. He followed that up with 36 in Monday’s game two win. The Pacers showed they can hang with Chicago in both games. The question is can they finish when the series shifts to Indiana? It’s going to be tough if starting point guard Darren Collison’s sprained ankle keeps him on the bench.

Prediction: Bulls in five.

1 San Antonio Spurs vs. 8 Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis picked up its first playoff win in franchise history, shocking the top seed in game one. As the regular season came to a close, it looked as if the Grizzlies were trying to get a matchup with the Spurs instead of improving their seeding. Maybe they know what they are doing. Or maybe the Spurs need to get Manu Ginobili back in the lineup to beat Memphis. His status for game two on Wednesday will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this series.
Prediction: Grizzlies in seven.

2 Miami Heat vs. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia nearly stole game one. The 76ers cut the Heat lead to one with two minutes to play but could not reclaim the lead. Miami took advantage of the free throw line to keep control of the game. The Heat hit 31 of 39 free throws while the 76 had just 15 attempts from the charity stripe. That wasn’t Philadelphia’s problem in game two though as it was blown-out 94-73.

Prediction: Heat in five.
2 L.A. Lakers vs. 7 New Orleans Hornets

Chris Paul played like the Chris Paul of old and New Orleans surprised the Lakers in game one. Kobe Bryant looked as if he may have been hurt at the end of the first half, but was able to return in the second half and keep the Lakers in the game. He didn’t get much help. Especially from Pau Gasol. The big man struggled with just eight points while Aaron Gray had a season-high 12 for New Orleans. Gray left in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. The Hornets will need him back to compete with the size of the Lakers.
Prediction: Lakers in six.
3 Boston Celtics vs. 6 New York Knicks

Ray Allen buried a three with 11 seconds to play to give Boston the game one win in a game the Knicks believe they should have won. Carmelo Anthony was called for a controversial offensive foul with 21 seconds left and it appeared that Kevin Garnett may have tripped Toney Douglas to get Allen open for the game-winning shot. The Knicks biggest problem now is the health of point guard Chauncey Billips. He left the game in the final minute with a leg injury and his status for the rest of the series is up in the air.

Prediction: Celtics in six.

3 Dallas Mavericks vs. 6 Portland Trailblazers

Portland was a popular upset pick but Dirk Nowitzki scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and the Mavericks took game one at home. The question is can they win game two? In eight of its last ten playoff wins, Dallas has followed it up with a loss. It will be a long series if that trend continues.

Prediction: Mavericks in seven.

4 Orlando Magic vs. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Orlando destroyed Atlanta in the playoffs last year. This year has been a different story. Dwight Howard exploded for 46 points and 19 rebounds but Atlanta dominated the game. The Hawks have beaten Orlando four straight times this season.

Prediction: Atlanta in six.

4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5 Denver Nuggets

Kevin Durant scored 41 and Russell Westbrook had 31 for the Thunder, and Denver still could have won the game. The Nuggets had the lead with a minute left and Oklahoma City took the lead on a basket that the NBA admitted later should not have counted because of basket interference. Both teams like to play fast and should provide a very entertaining series.

Prediction: Thunder in six.